Iconic Palestinian robe fashions a new political symbol

JERUSALEM (AP) — The traditional brightly embroidered dress of Palestinian women known as the “thobe” was not the type of garment one would expect to become a pop political symbol.

Now it’s gaining prominence as a softer expression of Palestinian nationalism, competing even with the classic keffiyeh — the headscarf donned by young stone-throwing Palestinian men protesting Israel’s occupation.

The robe, adorned with elaborate hand-stitched embroidery, requires months of grueling labor. Some thobes fetch thousands of dollars. The traditional textiles call to mind a bygone era of Palestinian peasant women sewing on a break from the fields.

Last month, Rashida Tlaib proudly wore her mother’s thobe to her historic swearing-in as the first female Palestinian American member of Congress, inspiring masses of women around the world, especially in the Palestinian territories, to tweet photos of themselves in their ancestral robes.

“The historic thobe conjures an ideal of pure and untouched Palestine, before the occupation,” said Rachel Dedman, curator of a recent exhibit at the Palestinian Museum focused on the evolution of Palestinian embroidery. “It’s more explicitly tied to history and heritage than politics. That’s what makes it a brilliant symbol.”

The Palestinian thobe traces its history to the early 19th century, when embroidery was confined to the villages.

Richly decorated dresses marked milestones in women’s lives: onset of puberty, marriage, motherhood. The designs varied from village to village — special three-dimensional stitching for the upper class of Bethlehem, big pockets for the nomadic Bedouin women, orange branch motifs for the orchard-famous city of Jaffa, said Maha Saca, director of the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem.

Thobe patterns also expressed women’s different social positions: red for brides, blue for widows, blue with multi-colored stitches for widows considering remarriage.

While Arab women across the region have worn hand-made dresses for centuries, the thobe has taken on a distinctly Palestinian character, particularly since the establishment of Israel in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s creation. Many took only their dresses with them into the diaspora, Saca added.

The war, which Palestinians call their “nakba,” or catastrophe, transformed the thobe.

“Suddenly, in the face of dispossession and cultural appropriation by Israelis, embroidery became an urgent task,” Dedman said. “The dress was taken up and politicized.”

Over decades of conflict that…

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